THEORIES OF CHANGE: Do they matter (yes) and why

Colin Sullivan

July 22 2021

Starting this post with a caveat: This is not my personal blog. I’m a reporter hired to help tell the story of 128 Collective, the causes we care about and the humans we fund. That means you’ll often hear me toeing a line between “I” and “we” — but it should be clear that I’m hoping to recede as much as I can and let the organization do the talking.

So: In this piece we’re exploring “theory of change” and what it means for a nimble family foundation like ours. What it means for our staff and our wide-ranging expertise. I admit that I had never thought about the topic until about two weeks ago, so I’m learning as we go.

For me, I figured “theory of change” meant buzzwords and ad campaigns. Is “Have a Coke and a smile” a shallow theory of change, compacted? How about “Make America Great Again” or “Black Lives Matter”? Or how about this slogan lifted from a fortune cookie: “Don’t live from your memory; live from your imagination.” Is that a theory of change, in ten words or less?

Or how about the yard signs one tends to see in the politically blue urban zone where I live? Just this morning, I spied a Martin Luther King quote in a patch of row-house grass in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. Next to a profile shot of MLK these words: “Get into trouble. Good trouble.” Up the street were more mini-credos that may or may not be theories of change: “In this house, we believe … women’s rights are human rights … no human is illegal … science is real … kindness is everything.”

But the answer is no, these are not theories of change. They are mottos and beliefs and personal statements of value. A theory of change (or ToC) looks at HOW those beliefs happen. A ToC outlines the necessary steps for making them so. It sets forth the steps to enacting the change those slogans hope to reflect.

128 Collective’s co-founder, Theresa Preston-Werner, said it better: “It considers all of the inputs, variables and drivers. And a good ToC recognizes the overlaps, messiness and pitfalls. At the outset they always seem linear, but good ones never are.”

In the philanthropic world, the concept is a serious matter. Developing your own viable “theory of change” is an essential methodology when you work in this universe, because we are trying to incite change here, and we want to do so strategically. We want to be able to show that “A + B equaled C” at least some of the time, right? So, for me, I have to defer to those who know more. That’s what reporters do; we learn on the fly, and we try to help others do the same, with whatever we discover. That’s the job.

Wait a minute. Was that just a first swing at my own theory of change? Should I sketch a flowchart or a framework? Hmm. I’ll have to think about it.

Anyway. The following details 128 Collective’s take. Maybe it can stand here like an inventory of how we feel about this and help others hunting for their own bedrock theories. Maybe just maybe.

‘Not likely to succeed’ as a baseline

The first challenge when dealing with difficult bogs and swamps — such as the murky political reality surrounding climate change — being the creation of a change theory that allows space and time to make systemic shifts happen. That’s how progressives talk, after all; we refer to systems and structures and movements. We draft pathways between each and try to connect them, often in the flowcharts and frameworks mentioned above. Coming up with a sound soundbite to represent your own method is not an easy task, because overnight change is far from likely, and that seems to be reflected in how hardened climate professionals approach the matter.

They’ve been through the wringer, after all. Years and years of climate denial and negative news cycles. Pessimism and apathy. Progress an inch at a time. And how about this for a true story: I once covered a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on planetary warming, chaired by climate denier Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), that featured one witness … Michael Crichton.

That’s right, the fiction writer. The guy behind “Jurassic Park”. He was the lone witness who told Inhofe precisely what he wanted to hear: that even he, a prolific science-fiction creator, could not imagine climate change was real or man-made. I had to look that hearing straight in the face and attempt “objective coverage” — when objectivity was laughable. That’s the environment climate pros have faced for decades.

With that reality as backdrop, Jae Pasari, 128 Collective’s climate project manager, offered perhaps the most succinct answer when asked the question. He kept it short and did not send a chart. His change maxim is flexible and allows for differences in each of the climate issues areas he tracks. It tends to shift, he said, “depending on my level of expertise on each and the context of the changeable moment.”

Pasari’s theory, in other words, has to acknowledge the might of fossil-fuel interests and how hard it is to budge entrenched industries from established modes. Likewise for politicians that cling to the campaign funds those interests eagerly provide.

“I try to support things that are ‘good’ and fight things that are ‘bad,’” he wrote, in an email. “In the context of climate, that ethic is both a means and an end since we are not likely to succeed in establishing a safe climate. ‘Good’ means lessening suffering and/or encouraging flourishing of current and future beings. ‘Bad’ means the opposite.”

Pasari later added that he thinks along the lines of “audience segmentation and scale.” On a big scale, he’s aligned with the notion that the climate crisis is largely “a problem of people not inhabiting a paradigm of public goods and shared responsibility.” He points to the structures of capitalism that force us to compete and vie with each other and accumulate safety. “So getting to a public-goods paradigm is really hard, but that’s at a really big scale,” he said.

On a smaller scale, which for Pasari means figuring out which organizations or movements 128 Collective should fund, he narrows the focus and examines which holes in the climate problem to plug. And he admits that’s a massive challenge, especially for an organization this small, but he believes “we have to try, because every tenth of a degree makes a huge difference, so you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Jake Werner, 128 Collective’s politics expert, approaches the big-scale questions with a change theory that doubles as a theory of modern society. In capitalism, society is a system, with each part connected to and interdependent with every other part. “But it's a specific kind of system: one that reproduces each of its parts through the expansion of capital,” he said.

“Growth is necessary to keep everything going, but it's also extremely destabilizing, so capitalism has a tendency to create major crises for itself,” he said. “When it destabilizes itself, that creates an opening to change the structure in a deep way. I think we're in one of those moments of fundamental change now, when the economy and culture and politics of the next few decades will be established.”

That means funding and finding groups that believe in a progressive system coming out of that crisis, he explained. On a closer-to-the-ground scale, Werner is less likely to find much value in theories of change, but he does see the exercise as worthwhile.

“Sometimes I see it being used as a kind of a filler that doesn’t tell us much of anything,” he said, “but I think it’s important to have something so you’re not just flailing around.”

Listening to MacKenzie Scott

Theresa Preston-Werner was similarly succinct and practical in her ToC approach. Her goal was to establish an organization that would “push our capital out into the hands of people who know best what to do with it and who need it the most.” That sounds a bit like MacKenzie Scott’s theory of change, as stated in a recent post on “Medium” in which she urged media covering her charitable work to “de-emphasize privileged voices and cede focus to others.”

“People struggling against inequities deserve center stage in stories about change they are creating,” wrote Scott in the post. “This is equally — perhaps especially — true when their work is funded by wealth. Any wealth is a product of a collective effort that included them. The social structures that inflate wealth present obstacles to them. And despite those obstacles, they are providing solutions that benefit us all.”

Theresa Preston-Werner conveyed a similar vibe. She doesn’t want to be the center of this newsletter’s attention, for instance. She wants the reporter in question to do what Scott said, which is cover the humans making the change, not the ones funding their work. And the reporter plans to do so, just as soon as he gets this high-concept story out of the way (ho ho ho).

Theresa added that she trusts her multi-disciplinary professional staff and expects them to “come with their own understanding of how climate intersects their field, and how best we can make progress.” She believes in their talents. That’s why she hired them.

“We focus on climate, but we know that climate is rarely anyone's number one cause,” she said. “So many things are more proximate. But climate affects all of those things — jobs, immigration, health, food and agriculture — and so we look for the leverage points that will move us forward on climate, but often inside of projects and movements where communities can make progress on the issues they care about.”

But the truth is Theresa came to those conclusions reluctantly. She did not think highly of theory of change when first starting this foundation a few years ago, thinking it an unhelpful construct that tends to justify high-priced consultants consuming months of billable hours to establish missions, goals, guidelines and “desired outcomes” for non-profits, large and small.

She had come to philanthropy from the tech universe, after all, where sequestering two smart people in a room to “map things out and come up with a plan” was often the approach to product design. She has lately come to believe her view was naive, because having a theory of change in mind has real value when she’s interviewed about what 128 Collective does, when she has to justify “how we choose what we fund and why.”

Conversations with Pasari were vital, because he forced her to shift her thinking from an approach that expected “three things to focus on” the way a product developer might to a more expansive model that would “figure out where the holes were that we could fit ourselves into, and hope those little holes were transformative.”

“So that fits in with politics, and politics is a really big lever,” she said. “That’s how we landed on this everything approach to climate.”

Drafting a workable chart

Sono Aibe, 128 Collective’s program manager for Public Health, also expressed a level of disdain given her prior work at large non-governmental organizations. A ToC can get in the way, she said, because in the real world “things often happen in a non-linear fashion.”

“Theories of change can be limiting when trying to create systems change and harnessing the many feedback loops across various inputs,” she said. “In public health, as we work on something like movement-building in women’s rights to contraceptive choices, or social and behavior change communications for proper handwashing, one also has to think cross-sectorally to create a theory that captures people’s living conditions and motivations holistically.”

Got it. (I think.) (I hope.) My problem understanding this likely having to do with where I started, which is to say a personal theory of change rather than professional. Amelia Abdelrazik, 128 Collective’s Learning and Impact manager, noted that she does not think of it that way, crediting her background in public health as well for having taught her to approach this “at the programmatic level, at the topic level.”

“It’s a tool,” she said. “It’s a way to check yourself and your assumptions. It should be a living document, something you return to annually (or more often, ideally) and iterate upon. Using it should create a feedback loop. The ToC informs the work you do and must be shaped by what you learn during the course of your work. Building a conceptual ToC is a good start, but it won’t be useful unless you can track what you’ve actually done and interrogate the implied cause-and-effect relationships between your activities and the societal change you’d like to see.”

Abdelrazik, then, was somewhat at odds with Jake Werner’s view, because she doesn’t approach her model as if a global theory of society. For her, “it’s a very concrete way to think about the activities you’re doing and every step of the way.”

Abdelrazik was good enough to offer a visual of what she means. She said the chart below is a reflection of how she prefers to “think tangibly” about the topic, not abstractly. Here’s how she might put together a ToC on climate change:


Ok, so, now I’m starting to get it. It’s like a list of goals spread around on a floor. Nearby are the challenges blocking or enabling each, or the ideal effects of those actions, all shaken together with arrows and boxes and cool paths that make us feel like we might get somewhere — right?

It’s a bit like a picture map, then. Like something that helps you beat “The Legend of Zelda” (that’s an old video game) (dating myself). A video-game map that shows us the way from no-change to change, in an ideal world. And while the map itself doesn’t do much on its own, it gains power in direct proportion with the human or humans enacting or following the map.

Got it. Here’s my first attempt. Let me know what you think …


Diversity and plurality

Ok, ok. Playing around with the ToC concept being quite the unexpected project in my life, if we’re being honest and nerdy about it, which by the way we definitely are.

For her part, Yari Greaney, program manager for Local Politics and Environmental Justice, tried to bring all these theories together, applauding “the diversity and plurality” in the different ways each staff member at 128 Collective approached this exercise. For her, an effective ToC “leaves room for many others to live inside it” — so maybe 128 Collective has done that successfully.

“Through electoral politics we can help expand democratic and worker rights, increase access to basic needs, and redistribute resources, all of which allow deeper and more widespread participation in longer-term political projects,” she wrote. “We can also prevent extractive projects and infrastructure in the short term. Meanwhile, we support movement leaders pushing for long-term change that will change the underlying political landscape.”

She added that the “intersectional organizing efforts” you might see depicted on her own flowchart should be accountable to frontline communities, and that helps build mass movements on the other side of her strategy map. If funders and their organizations can manage to build coalitions and improve working-class solidarity, she believes “the political landscape will shift toward progressive power, democracy will strengthen, and there will be space for emerging regenerative, just, and sustainable technologies and systems to take hold and flourish.“

Others like me on the 128 Collective staff who were less unfamiliar with the ToC concept also developed more personalized versions. Here’s the rundown, so we can complete the inventory, in case we want to put this article inside a ToC time capsule:

Rob Cameron, a RedwoodJS developer, said he doesn’t know the first thing about theories of change. He defers to Pasari on such questions, leaning on the climate expert to make the best decisions in the climate space. Pasari likewise said he leans on Cameron when it comes to computer questions, so in a sense their theories of change are complementary.

“The first thing I think of is give Jae more money,” Cameron said. “I spend zero minutes of my life on this.”

Kate Goss, our recently hired youth and climate education specialist, indicated this was her first time wrestling with the concept, having learned about it “18 days ago”. She added the caveat that she’s “sensitive to use of the word culture, in the context of the removal of indigenous children as a cultural genocide, and don’t want to send that message or implication.”

She offered this: “In my teenage days, I came across Shelly’s ‘Ozymandias' and was struck by the image of authoritarian power broken and eroding pathetically in the sand. I remember thinking to myself that, well, clearly that doesn’t work. So what does endure? What is the way to shape the world that would leave it better for the long term? I settled on the richness of human cultures, focusing on education and youth empowerment. Climate scientists speak of the essential elements of urgency and agency in meeting the climate emergency, and I see education and youth as central players.”

More succinct version: “I like to build programs and watch them fly,” she said.

Next up: David Price, another RedwoodsJS developer, who appears to value a more spiritual path to his own relationship with change that surprisingly does not lean on technology solutions as much as you might think.

“Technology is a technique that we use to extend human intelligences, so it’s always a means, it’s not the solution,” he said.

Price explained that he tends to view the issue through the prism of “virtue ethics,” meaning our personal behaviors and habits shape who we are. He’s generally skeptical of the philanthropy industry, because “if all of our focus is always around giving away money, that’s actually a very low-level virtue. Aristotle would be fearful of our virtue.”

Instead, Price focuses on the team and human interaction. He thinks about desire and our capacity for love. His is a personal change landscape that merges with his professional pursuits

“What we love shapes who we are,” he said. “I don’t know how to make change, but as a team we can shape each other.”

And finally, 128 Collective's co-founder Tom Preston-Werner, who’s been spending the week on a coding train “hackathon” with the teenage-led Hack Club heading west. Tom wants to invest in startups “that use science and technology to create better, less carbon intensive products in order to use markets to change large-scale consumer behavior. For example, create cheap cultured meat and replace factory farms.”

“Everything big starts with something small,” he said. “Every successful complex system starts as a simple system. I love funding things when they are small, because that is when they are fragile, and if I can help great people get their great ideas past infancy, those ideas can go on to shape the future we live in.”

Sounds about right to me. Thanks for reading.

— Colin Sullivan

Sullivan is the former West Coast bureau chief and congressional editor for E&ENews. He’s based in Washington, D.C.